Omer Aziz is the author of the forthcoming book, Brown Boy: A Story of Race, Religion, and Inheritance. He was a policy adviser to the minister of foreign affairs.
The photographs reveal the contours of a mask. By now, millions of people have seen the image: a man wearing dark brown makeup and a turban on his head, grinning into the camera. A spirit of conviviality and blissful unawareness reigns. Other people are present, but no one else has blackened their skin.
The man in question, of course, is Justin Trudeau, 29 years old at the time and living one of the most privileged lives in the entire land. The pictures are horrifying, and each one unmasks the man with the darkened skin.
A brown friend sent me the photo. “This is how you lose an election,” he said. I saw the picture and my throat constricted. Anger, shame and hurt pulsed in my temples. I had supported Mr. Trudeau, admired his tenacity and goodwill, and worked for his government. His father was the reason my father was even allowed here. And yet, there he was, native son of wealth and privilege, having sung all the right tunes about diversity to get elected, caught engaging in one of the most humiliating forms of racist mockery. It felt like a personal betrayal.
I thought back to the children in the school playground who used to shout “Paki” at me. I thought of the scraps and fights and bruises and broken teeth. I thought of the kids in my university who dressed up in insulting costumes and drunkenly revelled in appropriating other people’s cultures for the night.
Even as an adult, I carry this shame around with me, do what I must to hide it, run from it, dissemble it. I thought of all the brown and black kids who must be wondering or suppressing the questions of why our leader did what he did. The flip-side of brownface and blackface is the actual brown and black faces ashamed of who they are.
These photos and video are not to be taken lightly. They are extreme manifestations of racist derision. Brownface and blackface arise out of minstrelsy and colonialism, taking the ancient form of domination by humiliating people the white man has conquered, wearing their distorted faces as masks for one’s amusement.
Wearing brownface is an intentional act, satiating the white man’s fetish for appropriating the colour and the attire of the dispossessed, to serve his own fantasies. British culture, the historian Nupur Chaudhuri wrote, had a “long heritage of negative sentiments toward dark-skinned persons. The ultimate negative symbol is the devil – black, hairy, horned, and hoofed.” An ugly history bellowed out of Mr. Trudeau’s gaze.
The question is not whether Mr. Trudeau was filled with racist hatred, and the response to this cannot be, “But Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is worse.” The Liberal Leader wore blackface. Let’s start there. He said on Tuesday that he has not worn it since 2001, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was an adult who mocked people of colour for sport. He was innocent in a way that would be touching if it were not so repulsive. He is innocent, just like the country that seems to be shrugging this off. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime, a punishing innocence that cannot be easily forgiven.
Ever since Mr. Trudeau entered national politics, the actor-turned-leader had worn a mask that had been fitted so well for so long that part of him must have assumed its form. What lay underneath was the distempered face, the real face, the one that had been concealed.
He came from a rarefied social class that existed independently of real people’s lives, growing up in the prime minister’s official residence, surrounded by foreign dignitaries. He would have met heads of state from Africa and South Asia. It strains credulity to believe that he did not know exactly what he was doing when he blackened his skin.
Racism among the elite is hidden behind correctly phrased sentences and polite nods to fashionable ideas. People who have had the best of everything their whole lives also need you to know they have the best opinions.
This Canadian variant of racism is more insidious than the American: Protected by politeness, racism can be perpetuated under a shield of good intentions. This is also textbook neo-colonialism: The white man will govern us for our benefit, and anyone who opposes him will be slandered, or worse. Look at the plight of Indigenous peoples. Look at the racial makeup of who is incarcerated, detained, deported.
In Mr. Trudeau’s rise to power, there were other signs of a mind corrupted by privilege. The paid speeches he gave while an MP, despite his six-figure salary and trust fund. He told an American magazine that he wanted to box a “scrappy tough-guy senator from an Indigenous community.” The mistreatment of the former attorney-general. The costumes in India. What was evident was not just blindness, but a deliberate unwillingness to see, one that has caused our country great harm.
This brownface episode has made many people suddenly wake up to the reality that Canada may be racist. White Canadians may feel uncomfortable by all this, but minorities in this country have been dealing with discomfort since they looked in the mirror as children.
I am a prisoner of my own experience here. It had been my dream to work for Mr. Trudeau’s government on foreign policy. I had worked hard and earned the right to serve my country. I headed to Ottawa feeling optimistic and hopeful. But as soon as I got there, I felt that something was fundamentally wrong.
Everyone with real power was white and looked the same – unacceptable for a movement pledging racial diversity as a core principle. Condescending attitudes were regularly revealed. Minorities were undermined, ghettoized. The casual disregard of the privileged was systemic. I felt like I could not breathe.
After several months, I decided to leave of my own free will. It is still one of the hardest decisions I have made, and felt more like jumping off a building. The hurt ran deep. Friendships were broken. I felt that I had failed and my reality had been distorted beyond my recognition.
Weeks passed, my mental health worsened. I became isolated. When I worked up the courage to make some tepid critiques of the India trip online, a senior person from the Prime Minister’s Office wrote to me. Perhaps they finally wanted to listen?
No. I was told that no one trusted me there from the beginning, that I was in it for my own reasons and that I was self-regarding in my criticism. I was stunned. For months afterward, I blamed myself. I thought perhaps they were right – that I was another uppity brown person who was too impatient.
I questioned my own reality, and once again the internalized racism ravaged my mind. After all of that, to discover that Mr. Trudeau had a fondness for wearing my skin on his face. I had been played. All of us had.
We often speak of racism as though it is a purely emotional phenomenon, but racism manifests itself in the body, and the body responds to it like a virus. Cortisol levels spike, increasing the chance of almost every conceivable illness. An enormous amount of mental energy is expended trying to understand other people’s slights and to keep oneself under mental surveillance.
Your sense of reality becomes permanently distorted. You question your own dignity and worth. The sociology, the history, the economics, the privilege, the power, the whiteness: None capture how racism dislodges the body, cracks bones, shatters identities, turns the minority into an alien in his own skin. And for people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and work their way to the elite – always having to be twice as good – their cells visibly age faster because of the stress response in dealing with discrimination. They have the longest distance to fall.
Racism is not a play thing or a wedge issue to be weaponized. It is the tragic story of our lives.
Canada, like the United States, remains a divided country. Official statistics do not reveal this, but segregation exists first in the mind, especially of those who have been blind their whole lives. Whiteness is a shelter from the realities of the world, realities Mr. Trudeau and his kind never faced until now because the joke was always on somebody else.
Apologies are not enough; they are a beginning, not an end. What we need now is a national reckoning of the sort we have never had. People must be held accountable in all parties. Painful grievances must be aired, uncomfortable truths spoken.
No one is free from their history, and silence is another form of lying. We must force ourselves to see the “Other” in our midst, truly see them. Our country has lied to itself enough already. Real change will happen only when Mr. Trudeau and his class have the courage to open their eyes and take a good look at what they’ve been missing. Until that day comes, we will remain in an infantile and morally duplicitous state of innocence.
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